May meets EU's Tusk on eve of Brexit speech

LONDON • British Prime Minister Theresa May was due to host European Union President Donald Tusk for Brexit talks yesterday, on the eve of her keynote speech on future trade ties and amid a row over Northern Ireland.

Their meeting in Downing Street comes as the EU prepares its position on negotiations on the future relationship with Britain once it leaves the bloc.

Mrs May is due to set out her plans in a long-awaited speech today, but it has been overshadowed by a dispute with Brussels over the status of the Irish border after Brexit.

The EU this week published a draft law codifying the divorce terms struck with Britain in December, which includes plans to avoid any customs checks on the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland.

Mrs May reacted angrily to the proposal that Northern Ireland, part of Britain, stays in a customs union with the EU if there is no better solution, warning she would not accept anything that risked the constitutional integrity of her country.

In a speech in Brussels yesterday morning before travelling to London, Mr Tusk said that if the Prime Minister did not like the idea, she should come up with an alternative.

"In a few hours I will be asking in London whether the UK government has a better idea," he said, adding that he was absolutely sure EU member states would agree to the draft.

He also criticised Britain's approach to the negotiations on the future relations, saying its self-imposed "red lines" made its hopes of frictionless trade impossible.

"I want to stress one thing clearly. There can be no frictionless trade outside of the customs union and the single market. Friction is an inevitable side effect of Brexit by nature," he said.

Before her talks with Mr Tusk, Mrs May chaired an extraordinary meeting of her cabinet to discuss her speech tomorrow, amid continuing divisions over how closely Britain should remain aligned to the EU.

She has said Britain will create a new "deep and special partnership" with the EU, but has ruled out staying in its single market or a new customs union, which would require continued free movement of migrants and adherence to EU rules.

Two former prime ministers added their voices to the criticism of Mrs May's position. Former Conservative premier John Major warned the government's promises were "just not credible", while his Labour successor Tony Blair said that Mrs May's hopes of keeping market access without following EU rules was "not possible".

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 02, 2018, with the headline 'May meets EU's Tusk on eve of Brexit speech'. Print Edition | Subscribe